I was recently interviewed for an industry-based magazine all about the food industry’s new challenge of reducing sugar levels in food. I thought I would share my answers to some of the questions on my blog for anyone interested in knowing a little more about what the food industry are doing to reduce sugar in food products…
Q. With the reduction in recommended sugar intake, how is the industry going to help people get there?
A. There is a lot of work needed by the food industry in helping to reduce the sugar intake of the UK population, in line with recent SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition) recommendations. Some of the initiatives suggested include; using smaller packaging and serving sizes, reformulation of products to maintain quality and taste whilst bringing sugar levels down, advertising of healthier products and education via adverts and websites.
Q. Behind all the national debate on this, what is the situation on the ground?
A. For Public Health workers – such as Registered Nutritionists and Dietitians – the situation hasn’t changed. Advice has been to reduce added (or free) sugars in the diet for many years. Now we just have even more reason to promote and push this message.
For the food industry it’s more of a challenge, as well as a well-needed kick in the right direction. The public demand for healthier food, alongside an increased awareness of levels of sugar in our manufactured food, has left the food industry with no option other than to start making changes.
Q. What are companies already doing to reformulate products?
A. Due to the Government’s public health responsibility deal, certain food industry parties have already proposed some changes to their food products. For example1:
- Mars pledging to limit single chocolate portions to 250 calories or less
- Britvic is to remove its full sugar Fruit Shoot from the market
- Asda removing nine tonnes of sugar from condiments and table sauces
- Coca Cola reducing the calories in Sprite by 30% and introducing a 250ml can of Coca Cola containing 105kcal in addition to introducing a new stevia sweetened Coca Cola, reducing calories by 30%.
- Aramark and Beefeater are now offering meals of less than 500 calories
- Major retailers including Asda, Co-op, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose provide education, advice and information about the nutrition content of their products
- A range of initiatives by caterers including the use of reduced calorie products and recipes, and healthy meal offers
- Even more recently Tesco banning the sale of added sugar drinks in the kids sections of their supermarkets
There is more work going on behind the scenes with sugar reduction, especially in light of the release of SACN report. However, some of this progress is slow and, in order to see a knock on effect to public health, we need big changes and fast.
Q. Where have there been the biggest breakthroughs for the food industry?
A. Breakthroughs for me would include the well publicised changes made recently by Tesco who were the first to commit to reducing added sugars by 5% incrementally a year in ALL own label soft drinks and agreed also to the removal of all added sugar from the “Kids” category in September (Brand & Own Label) (from Action on Sugar).
Other schemes and campaigns such as Jamie Oliver’s most recent Sugar Rush campaign which sees him and his restaurant chain putting a 10% tax on sugary drinks and beverages and donating the money to a children’s charity set up to support education around food in schools.
Additionally, another example of a breakthrough in this field would be Consensus Action on Salt & Health’s (CASH) relentless campaigning to reduce salt in manufactured foods which saw enormous success – with many food products now 20-40% lower in salt than they were 10 years ago.
Q. Where have there been the biggest barriers for food industry?
A. Obviously one of the main barriers is making changes whilst maintaining profits and keeping consumers happy. Maintaining taste, whilst making healthier products and all the while producing what consumers will actually purchase is no easy task. Recently I heard reports from a well-known cereal brand who trialled a new, healthier version of a pre-existing sugary cereal with the hope that the public would happily make the switch to the lower sugar alternative. However the newer version of the cereal didn’t take off and had to be pulled from the shelves due to low sales.
Q. Which areas of the industry have seen the most reformulation?
A. Food reformulation initiatives have so far focused on reducing salt, saturated fat, trans fats, sugars and calories.
The area of salt reduction has probably seen the most significant changes and had the most impact on public health so far. Public Health Professionals are hoping to see similar changes for levels of sugar in foods but are also aware that the challenge of sugar reduction is a much greater one.
Q. What has the consumer reaction been?
A. For manufacturers it is crucial to be aware that consumers do not accept changes or alterations in the taste of food products. As with salt reformulation, a gradual change over a number of years can help to ensure that taste and texture alterations go more or less undetected.
A. The reformulation of foods to reduce levels of sugar is a challenging step for food manufacturers. As well as being a sweetener in foods, sugar has many other roles. These include acting as a preservative – helping to extend the shelf life of foods and as a fermentation substrate. It is also important in the texture, structure, colour, mouth feel, viscosity and flavoring of foods. This is why reformulation of foods to reduce sugar is such a challenge – it doesn’t simply involve the removal of a single nutrient and, in fact, more often than not the nutrient removed will have to be replaced with another substance.
Q. What are the other technical challenges involved?
A. Although artificial sweeteners can be used to replace the sweet taste of foods, to give the same texture or bulk to a product other ingredients may also need to be added. This means that sometimes reformulation can actually lead to an increased energy density per 100g. Additionally, replacements for sugar could have other effects such as gastro-intestinal troubles for consumers.
Q. What are their implications for consumer labelling?
A. Consumers tend to find labels confusing as it is – multiple changes also reduces consumer confidence in using food labels. Additionally, EU legislation may state that in some instances, sugar replacements must come with a warning on the label e.g. Foods containing more than 10% added polyols must be labelled with the wording ‘excessive consumption may produce laxative effects’